Friday night topic: the corrupted web


— 5:00 PM on July 11, 2014

Man, that creeping feeling. Perhaps you've felt it. You're searching the Internet to learn about something, perhaps a particular sort of product to buy, and you come across a trove of user reviews, a discussion in the comments of an article, or perhaps a forum thread. You think you know the lowdown on this nifty new product, but then somebody steps into the discussion and makes an impassioned and informed case against it, instead trumpeting the incumbent product from an established brand.

You come away thinking, hmm, maybe I should reconsider this decision before I do anything.

A little later, then, it creeps up on you: a discomfort, a sense that maybe you've been had. Maybe that post that persuaded you wasn't from a fellow consumer at all. Come to think of it, that person did seem to be oddly passionate and specific in his criticisms, in ways that maybe don't matter to the average guy.

Then the realization: I have no idea who any of these people really are or what truly motivates them. Man, I can't trust anything I've read.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I'm talking about some of the exchanges in the review comments here at TR, given everything, but I'm totally not. I had this experience while browsing the comments on a review of—of all things—Harry's razors. I'd already been using the razors for a while and found them to be quite good, so my B.S. detector eventually lit up at some of the things being said about them.

This sense that the online world has been corrupted, perhaps to the point where it's more manipulative than worthwhile as a tool for research, has struck me increasingly often in recent months, while browsing the web, reading app reviews, and surfing reddit. Man, especially at reddit.

We know these things happen. There's an entire, booming segment of the PR and marketing world known as "online reputation management." Governments and activists have gotten into the act. Real money is spent, on a scale we may not fully realize, to monitor, flag, and respond quickly when something happens online.

This reality can have a mundane and even positive side, like when a popular FNT about light bulbs landed me overnight on the press mailing lists of multiple lighting brands. But it can also have negative consequences, like when I had to nuke our thread about the best Blu-ray software from space. This smoking hole in the ground was once a neck-deep cesspool of spam.

Spammers and many other online shills are kind of clumsy. They tend to be fairly obvious. But it stands to reason that there are good ones who are much more difficult to detect. Once they've cleaned up their grammar and syntax and start participating organically in conversations, sorting out the shills looks to be darn near impossible. The online realm's anonymity and lack of presence robs us of the tools and limitations that help keep dishonest dealing in check in everyday life.

Which leads me to propose what I'll humbly call Wasson's Law: 80% of all Internet conversations are stealth shills arguing with one another. It may not be true yet, but it probably will be soon. Even if isn't, we should probably be assuming that it is.

I don't really know what to do about this problem. Critical thinking has always been a crucial part of interpreting any source of information, but I fear the web is becoming so thoroughly corrupted, so consistently gamed, that it's a threat to everything the open Internet was supposed to represent: the free exchange of ideas, superior consumer intelligence, and so on. What if the web just took a decade or so longer to get to the same destination the email inbox arrived at years ago—a mind-numbing collection of unsolicited messages—only this time, we have no good means of sorting out what's legit and what isn't? Discuss.

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